Postcard from Northern Ireland


In Derry town this week, a little piece of history was made. At a memorial service for all the soldiers from Ireland who died in the two World Wars, the flag of the Irish Republic, the tricolour, was officially flown alongside the Union Jack for the first time ever.

Mussenden temple in Londonderry

So is peace breaking out? Not all over the North.

From Dublin, the drive north to Belfast is a quick and scenic trip through the Mountains of Mourne. At first sight, Belfast is just another badly planned, modern post-industrial city, offering the same dreary range of middle-level global shops and services you would find in any provincial town in Australia, but decorated by the ubiquitous cranes and scaffolding every EU country seems to sport these days.

At second view, via a guided tour of those notorious little streets the Falls Road, Shankill and surrounds we come face to face with the reality of the conflict.

In the narrow, shabby streets, mean housing shrieks poverty. Dwellings are burned out or left damaged and vacant. Broken and boarded up windows are the result of bombings, arson and shootings, or of bullies turning up late at night to terrorise women alone with children. The massive murals depicting scenes and protagonists from both sides of the conflict are bizarre, cartoon-like, but frightening and moving.

Our guide, Francis, is a survivor of the Falls Road. He now runs a successful B&B, with ‘political tours’ as an optional extra. He is informed, passionate, heartbroken. A few minutes into the tour he stops trying to be even handed. He is not an optimist. ‘Look at the schools in this street,’ he says. One short street, two primary schools, on opposite sides of the road. One is well set up; with a colorful playground furnished with the kind of equipment you would see in an Australian school. The other is an old, near derelict building with no playground toys. The windows are barred and shuttered. This is the Catholic school.

Only 5 per cent of schools, we are told, are integrated. For the rest, segregation continues in all aspects of life, providing fertile ground for bigotry. Francis tells us that Catholic and Protestant children living in the same street don’t talk to each other, nor do their parents or teachers. Until this changes, the harmony suggested by the flying of the two flags remains just a promise.

Belfast’s Catholic cemetery, familiar from global TV as the venue for nationalist burials and more violence, is a visual litany of tragedy and waste. Photos of the dead placed on tombstones drive home the youthfulness of the fallen they are teenagers and men and women barely into their twenties. Bobby Sands’s memorial is here, among dozens less well known, who died similar, terrible deaths in pursuit of the same ideal.

Perhaps it will not have been in vain. Things are changing. A lot of people sound a little hopeful. The decommissioning of their weapons by the IRA has changed the dynamic for the better, despite this week’s refusal by the US government of a visa to Gerry Adams who had planned to attend a New York fundraiser for Sinn Féin. This decision seems particularly clumsy. Sinn Féin is a regular political party, now attracting substantial votes both in the North and in the Republic. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the ballot box over the gun?

The town of Derry, scene of the Bloody Sunday massacres of 1972, has moved along a little. Democratic politics means Catholics/nationalists get elected to the city council. It means direct discrimination in jobs and housing has stopped.

The extravagant, ugly, neo-gothic Guildhall home of the city council was burned down early in the Troubles. One of the convicted arsonists served his sentence and was later elected to the same council. The shops are still shuttered at night, creating a creepy effect ignored by young locals, who party noisily until the early hours.

Hope springs eternal, particularly if you drive further north along the dramatic Atlantic coast through the lyrical glens of Antrim. We reached the northernmost point of the island, Malin Head. Isolated and wild, it felt like a different planet from Belfast and Derry, but it takes only a couple of hours on the EU-funded roads.

The countryside throughout the north presents postcard scenes of serene cattle and sheep in bright green fields; tidy towns even if they announce themselves ‘proudly Loyalist’ and cheerful locals happy to work in the growing hospitality industry. The developers are obviously giving peace a chance. New hotels and housing development are generating jobs.

I have to believe that economic growth and the opportunities it creates will break down the barriers, and distract the combatants from their bitter history. Maybe those schools, eventually integrated, will provide a springboard for the North into a new society that will allow inclusion and tolerance.

This is more or less the story of the Republic, otherwise known as the Celtic Tiger of Europe. And in the land of this tiger, all political leaders, including the apparently permanent Taoiseach (or Head of Government in the Republic of Ireland) Bertie Ahern, are reintroducing the policy of a united Ireland by consent of course.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.